Sequester 2013: The U.S. Military Will Still Be Strong After it Happens

With the March 1 deadline for the budgetary sequester just around the corner, and our political leaders embroiled in a fight over who gets blamed, people nationwide are fretting over which programs will be cut.

Since all non-discretionary spending is exempt – Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, veterans benefits, etc. – this naturally pushes those cuts onto the remaining half the budget, including the defense budget. In a testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that the cuts would (1) put most of its civilian employees on paid leave, (2) limit ship and aircraft maintenance, training and construction, (3) reduce training periods for Army units and the loss of 100,000 personnel from the Army/Army Reserve/National Guard. While the Navy’s operations out in the Pacific would be reduced by a third, funding for Afghanistan would not be impacted. 

Defense hawks equate this with the end of America as we know it. We will provide the enemy with a chink in our armor that they will exploit to defeat us at any second. 

This is patently ridiculous. Rather than embodying the end of American security, the sequester actually provides an excellent opportunity to curtail wasteful defense spending and refocus our national security establishment on the threats that will actually confront us in the future.

First, we must acknowledge that a $45 billion cut to the Pentagon’s budget is only 5% of what it spends every year. Cuts that would devastate any other government function that people rely on – housing, law enforcement, environmental protection, etc. – are only a pittance to the DoD. How can we have the greatest defense complex in the world if it can’t figure out how to tighten its budget 5%? Perhaps this is the same DoD that remains the only federal agency that can’t pass a government audit because its accounting practices are so terrible that it won’t be able to put out accurate figures until at least 2017. This isn’t even touching the DoD’s poor project management practices, which so bungled the development of a new accounting system to fix their audit problems that it overrun its budget $6 billion.

The Pentagon is the worst steward of taxpayer money in the federal government and its cries of poverty should be treated as the travesty they are.

Secondly, we own or are developing so many wasteful and useless weapon systems that they ought to be cut as swiftly as possible, rather than given a dragged-out demise, wasting taxpayer money along the way. We have over a thousand nuclear weapons that we will never use, a ballistic missile shield of dubious quality, expensive manned bombers in an era of ever-stronger drone aircraft, and stealth fighters that cost $405 million each. We also have a thousand overseas bases that likely cost 5-10 times as much as what the Pentagon states publicly due to, again, poor accounting. Unlike other government bodies the Pentagon has money lying around just waiting to be saved.

This would also refocus the Pentagon’s defense mission on future threats rather than on past wars. There is no need to cultivate a military ready to fight the Cold War – the tanks, planes and nukes – when future threats emanating from China and non-state actors call for a different assortment of tools. Drones, special forces, cyber security teams, and the occasional naval and air strike force to project power abroad are far cheaper to maintain than what the Pentagon is currently undertaking.

Lastly, the impact of the sequester on the economy through defense spending is also limited, thanks to the long-term nature of defense contracts. It takes years to build an aircraft carrier or a stockpile of tanks, planes and missiles and that money is dispensed slowly. The sequester will reduce the rate of that spending, but the money will eventually be used over the lifetime of the project. The industrial complex we need to create the high-tech weapons that provide us with our battlefield advantages will survive until our economy recovers. This is not to deny that many stores surrounding local bases will be impacted by troop cuts, or that many people will be out looking for work after being laid off by the military, but this simply provides yet another opportunity for the country to focus its economic energy on productive private sector activity, rather than on inefficient government spending. 

Consequently, we must use the opportunity the sequester presents us to relinquish the Pentagon of both the money it so poorly manages and the legacy weapon platforms designed for a war twenty years past. Our economy, our country, can withstand this more than cuts to any of our other discretionary domestic programs.